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God's Self-revelation Is Always True
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Q U I C K S C A N

How Much of the Bible Is Fact?
Infancy Gospel of James
Predestination Revisited
Why Cover Statues with Red Instead of Purple?


Q: What documents or decisions have led the Church to say that many of the incidents described in the Bible are demonstrative myths? In a broader sense, how has the Church come to this conclusion? How can someone know which incidents are fact and which are myth?

A: The Bible is always true in the sense that it conveys the revelation that God wishes to share with us. The Bible, however, does not present itself as a written transcript of what you would have seen if you had been present during each of the events described there.

If that were the case, then one of the two creation accounts (Genesis 1:1—2:4a or Genesis 2:4b-25) would have to be considered inaccurate. Because the final editor of the Book of Genesis considered each of them as true in its own way, they are part of that inspired book.

One meaning of myth is something that is false. For example, unicorns exist in art but no one has ever seen one in real life. In that sense, they are false.

The first definition of myth in Webster's 10th Collegiate Dictionary reads, "a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the worldview of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon."

Because 21st-century Westerners usually pride themselves on being realistic and scientific, they often consider false whatever cannot be weighed, measured or otherwise described externally. Such linear reasoning is sometimes called left-brain thinking.

Useful as left-brain thinking is, right-brain thinking believes that there can be a deep truth best conveyed through poetry, song, dance, sculpture or similar expressions. According to this approach, even a fictional story can convey a deep truth. Wouldn't the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) be true in terms of God's self-revelation even if someone could prove that Jesus was not describing an actual event?

People sometimes think that God's self-revelation can occur only through facts capable of being independently verified. Everything else can be dismissed as myth.

The late John L. McKenzie, S.J., in his Dictionary of the Bible (first published in 1965) called myth "an essential part of the patterns of human thought and discourse which can never be entirely replaced by logical discourse, particularly in those questions for which logical discourse fails to render an answer which satisfies the mind."

He goes on to quote Millar Burrows who described myth as "a symbolic, approximate expression of truth which the human mind cannot perceive sharply and completely but only glimpse vaguely, and therefore cannot adequately or accurately express....Myth implies, not falsehood, but truth; not primitive, naïve misunderstanding but an insight more profound than scientific description and logical analysis can ever achieve. The language of myth in this sense is consciously inadequate, being simply the nearest we can come to a formulation of what we see very darkly."

Trying to categorize all biblical stories as either scientifically verifiable or myths is an impossible task. Scripture is not a scientific textbook that needs corrections based on newer and more reliable science.

On the other hand, has any left-brain thinker explained better than the Book of Genesis does why there is evil in the world? Has a linear, left-brain approach provided a better explanation than the Gospels do of who Jesus was and why he matters to us?

Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation is the most official, recent summary of the Catholic Church's faith about what the Bible is and how it should be interpreted.

In heaven, people who dismiss the entire Bible as myth and those who think every detail is historically verifiable will both be surprised by God's complete self-revelation.

Q: I recently read online the Book of James, also called the Protoevangelium of James. It describes how St. Joseph was selected as Mary's husband and Mary's early childhood.

Is the Book of James approved by the Church? If so, why isn't it in the Bible? I realize that this writing differs from the New Testament's Letter of James.

A: This writing is not in the Bible because the whole Christian community did not see its faith reflected there, as it did in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The term Protoevangelium (first Gospel) suggests that its contents record events prior to the four Gospels in the New Testament.

In fact, internal evidence indicates that this writing uses the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, as well as Old Testament and non-biblical traditions. The Infancy Gospel of James was already known to the Scripture scholar Origen. One scholar dates it about 100 years before Origen's death in 254.

The author of the Infancy Gospel of James identifies himself as the "brother of the Lord" mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. From other sources, we know that this James was martyred in 62 A.D.—well before the Gospels of Matthew and Luke reached their final form. The author harmonized details from Matthew and Luke instead of allowing those texts to reflect very different authors.

Ron Cameron has edited The Other Gospels: Non-Canonical Gospel Texts (Westminster Press, 1982), which gives background on other apocryphal gospels not found in the New Testament.

Q: If God knows everything, including what we will do in the future, how can human beings be truly free? In that case, has God predestined some people to salvation and others to damnation?

A: Human beings must talk about past, present and future. We cannot relate to time in any other way. Thus, we easily assume that God exists in time and relates to time the same way. The question of predestination, however, presumes that God relates to time in two ways simultaneously: everything is eternally present and yet everything unfolds in the past-presentfuture sequence.

God, however, existed before the cosmos, our planet, human beings and even human time were created. The Scriptures in many places speak of God as existing in human time, starting with the creation of Adam. After telling him not to eat of the tree of life (Genesis 2:16-17), God creates Eve and then Adam and Eve break that commandment and immediately are ashamed of doing so (3:1-7). Later they encounter God, who makes clothes for them and expels them from the Garden of Eden (3:8-24).

One consequence of assuming that God exists in human time is the idea that the Son of God became a human being only because of Adam and Eve's sin—in effect, that Jesus was some kind of Plan B. Challenging that assumption, Blessed John Duns Scotus (d. 1308) and other theologians have said that Jesus' Incarnation was always God's plan.

Psalm 90 affirms, "A thousand years in your [God's] eyes are merely a yesterday" (verse 4). This idea is repeated in 2 Peter 3:8, "But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day."

We frequently speak of God as acting in human time, but that is a limit. The Creator who made human time cannot possibly be limited by it.

God has given us human freedom because, without it, we could not love. The story of Adam and Eve suggests that sin's first casualty is a willingness to accept responsibility for our actions. Adam blames Eve, who blames the serpent. God created human freedom and continues to respect it. The explanation that God has predestined all our actions creates more problems than it solves because it contradicts several parts of Scripture and our experience.

Q: When I was a child 80 years ago, statues in Catholic churches were covered in purple during Holy Week. During Holy Week this year, my parish covered its statues with red cloth. Is that supposed to represent Jesus' blood shed for our sins? Why the change?

A: Covering statues and crucifixes in churches during Holy Week continues to be the custom in many places but is not a universal requirement. One exception is the cross that is unveiled during the Good Friday liturgy.

Although purple is considered a penitential color, the Church uses red vestments on Palm Sunday and on Good Friday.

If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.


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